By: Samar Khan
Greetings everybody, Chulbul-Pandey has returned to deliver another review of an Oscar hopeful! This week, the film being covered is the one that reunites Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks the midst of the Cold War. This film, ladies, and gentlemen is Bridge of Spies.
When going into a film headlined by Steven Spielberg in the role of director and Tom Hanks in the lead role, hopes immediately are raised that the film will be as memorable and classic as their most celebrated team up, Saving Private Ryan. Add in the fact that the film was written by Joel and Ethan Coen (oh, you know, the duo behind classics such as Fargo, No Country for Old Men & True Grit) and expectations rightfully reach stratospheric levels of hype. Despite all of that quality, what the film delivers does not reach that level of expected quality; it comes agonizingly close to being a great film, but certain setup decisions hold it back. Keep in mind, the film was still a solid effort that ticked all of the right boxes so failing to reach the lofty goals I described in no way detracts from what was still a solid flick. From the great acting to incredible visuals to the focus on the story that does away with the expected love story shoo-in typical of many films, it certainly does a lot of things right. The part that immediately draws the viewer in is how Hanks’ character, an American insurance lawyer, is selected to defend a Russian spy (played by Mark Rylance) in a case where the odds are heavily stacked against said Russian. The opening 45 minutes has the viewer thinking this will be a Cold War era film that goes against the norm, focusing more in-depth on the xenophobia prevalent during that era and less on establishing the Soviets as the indisputable villains. That the film fails to further such an idea and opts to focus on battlefield negotiations can be seen as a disappointment, as a film dedicated to exploring hostilities by the highest levels of the United States authorities against sympathetic non-American villains would have been a fairly novel and innovative idea. The film’s decision to move away from this idea drags its grade down a notch, bringing it from something special to just solid.
The final hour is a distinctly notable tonal change, as the film essentially transitions from what was a film based on the court of law in the first half to a hostage negotiation/amateur spycraft in the second half. While both halves were executed well, one could not help but feel that the first half could have been extended a little bit longer to cover certain themes broached (such as the injustice of the US Justice System against alien immigrants) instead of jumping not only into a different style of story but a different part of the world as well. The film used its 2+ hour run time very well (when has a Spielberg film ever not been consistently excellent in terms of time management) but that glaring feeling persists throughout that it could have been more impactful and “epic” had it followed the path the first 45 minute established.
The little details that are packed into the film’s scenes and individual performances are marvelously executed, from the lack of subtitles in foreign language scenes highlighting the “show, not tell” attitude adopted by Spielberg and co, to the enthralling and marvelous opening segment that sets the stakes for what is to follow. The dialogue was generally superb throughout, and it says something for the quality of a film when nearly 3/4s of it can be filled with conversations across a desk and yet the film’s quality is elevated further due to such a setup. The Coen brothers’ fingerprints were all over the script and it showed, as their films are famous for their engaging dialogue.
Tom Hanks, as is the norm for him, marvels in a very restrained role this time around (he’ll get his usual Oscar nomination, but his performance is not quite at Saving Private Ryan level excellent). For any fans of legendary actor Jimmy Stewart, this feels as if it is the most Jimmy Steward-type role of Hanks career, which is always a good thing. Mark Rylance, in his role as an alleged Soviet spy, actually ends up stealing the show, putting forth a performance that will rightfully generate awards buzz in the coming months. His performance, despite being delivered in a supporting and thus limited role, keeps viewers invested in his Soviet character in the film, which is not something Hollywood usually excels at. His timing and delivery of lines also served to lighten the mood for the crowd as well, as he defies the traditional expectations of a boring, stoic Soviet character.
The film’s most dramatic moments are noticeably familiar, however; without any spoilers, suffice it to say that outside of the climactic final scene, other moments have been done in previous war and espionage films. However, Spies stands out for its relatively innovative first half, a courtroom drama that helps the viewer envision what life would have truly been like in the aftermath of the Second World War. The easiest way to sum up the film would be this: Bridge of Spies is mostly about covering and delivering material that many films had attempted to previously but Spies does it better than most.
Janusz Kaminski provides some wonderful images with his cinematography. One notable scene involving a teenager biking alongside the Berlin Wall as it is being built is both tense and remarkable for its beauty. A downside of that is that while that scene – and a few others- was exceptionally shot, no single shot felt quite “epic” in its scope, a disappointment when considering the vast amount of iconic and “epic” shots Spielberg’s prior films have been host to. Additionally, Spielberg moved away from his recent tendency to use overpowering soundtracks, instead utilizing either very serene ambient music or no music at all, preferring to let the scene and natural sound tell the story. That decision lends itself well to Spies, as the use of a stronger sound in the climactic scene helped to elevate the quality of the scene and bring along with it a greater appreciation for the conclusion.
As has become customary for almost any film with Spielberg at the helm or with Hanks starring, Spies will undoubtedly earn some Oscar consideration. When compared to the vast filmography of the legendary duo and the previous work of all involved parties, however, one cannot help but feel that the film just lacks that extra oomph to push it over the top.
On that note, Chulbul-Pandey once again bids thou adieu.
Bridge of Spies earns a B+ for defeating communism.